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John Calvin’s Institutes (ICR) > Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 12 to Book 1, Chapter 9, Section 2

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In our previous session, we left off by discussing how the many evidences that God furnishes to us through general revelation (nature) are profitable because sinners go astray. We continue our study on this point.


12. Humans are prone to creating for themselves false gods and false religion. Calvin laments “how horrible is the blindness of the human mind” (p. 65). It is somewhat understandable when uneducated men fall into superstitious belief, but it affects the unschooled and gifted alike. “Hence it appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god [cf. Acts 17:23]” (p. 66).

13. Humans distort the manifest revelation of God and are therefore without excuse. God despises it whenever we invent anything in religion. It is not good enough to come close to the truth; we need the actual truth when we worship God. “Certainly among the pagans in Christ’s lifetime the Samaritans seemed to come closest to true piety; yet we hear from Christ’s mouth that they knew not what they worshiped [John 4:22]. From this it follows that they were deluded by vain error… But if even the most illustrious wander in darkness, what can we say of the dregs?” (p. 67). “There [is] no pure and approved religion, founded upon common understanding alone… Therefore… it remains for God himself to give witness of himself from heaven” (pp. 67, 68).

14. General revelation cannot be comprehended by men without faith. “The invisible divinity is made manifest in such spectacles [of general revelation], but that we have not the eyes to see this unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith. And where Paul teaches that what is to be known of God is made plain from the creation of the universe [Romans 1:19], he does not signify such a manifestation as men’s discernment can comprehend; but, rather, shows it not to go farther than to render them inexcusable” (p. 68). “Therefore, although the Lord does not want for testimony while he sweetly attracts men to the knowledge of himself with many and varied kindnesses, they do not cease on this account to follow their own ways, that is, their fatal errors” (p. 68).

15. “But although we lack the natural ability to mount up unto the pure and clear knowledge of God, all excuse is cut off because the fault of dullness is within us” (p. 68). We are without excuse: “for a man to pretend that he lacks ears to hear the truth when there are mute creatures with more than melodious voices to declare it; or for a man to claim that he cannot see with his eyes what eyeless creatures point out to him; or for him to plead feebleness of mind when even irrational creatures give instruction!” (p. 69). If we cannot see, hear, or understand God through general revelation, the fault is our own. “The fact that men soon corrupt the seed of the knowledge of God, sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature (thus preventing it from coming to a good and perfect fruit), must be imputed to their own failing” (p. 69).


Now that we acknowledge that sinful humanity distorts the general revelation of nature, we turn our study to the revelation of God in Scripture (chapter 6). We can be sure that it is from God because of the witness of the Holy Spirit (chapter 7). The Holy Spirit is the primary witness that Scripture is from God, but this witness can also be supplemented by apologetic arguments (chapter 8). In response to radicals that claimed private revelation apart from Scripture, Calvin points out that the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture never contradicts himself (chapter 9). To summarize, for the rest of this session, we will be learning about God’s revelation in Scripture and the role of the Holy Spirit in bearing witness to it.

1. Calvin uses the “two books” metaphor to describe general and special revelation. The first is given to all men through nature and the second is given as grace. “That brightness which is borne in upon the eyes of all men both in heaven and on earth is more than enough to withdraw all support from men’s ingratitude... Despite this, it is needful that another and better help be added to direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe. It was not in vain, then, that he added the light of his Word by which to become known unto salvation” (pp. 69-70).

Calvin aptly compares the role of Scripture to those of spectacles (eye glasses) which help us see. “Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God” (p. 70). There is knowledge of God as Creator and as Redeemer.

2. “For by his Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever, a faith that should be superior to all opinion. Finally, in order that truth might abide forever in the world with a continuing succession of teaching and survive through all ages, the same oracles he had given to the patriarchs it was his pleasure to have recorded, as it were, on public tablets. With this intent the law was published, and the prophets afterward added as its interpreters” (p. 71). In saying this, Calvin does not dissuade us from appreciating God’s revelation through nature, which he refers to as a theatre, but he reminds us that Scripture is superior. “However fitting it may be for man seriously to turn his eyes to contemplate God’s works, since he has been placed in this most glorious theater to be a spectator of them, it is fitting that he prick up his ears to the Word, the better to profit.”

3. & 4. Scripture is needed to preserve the true knowledge of God. “Suppose we ponder how slippery is the fall of the human mind into forgetfulness of God, how great the tendency to every kind of error, how great the lust to fashion constantly new and artificial religions. Then we may perceive how necessary was such written proof of the heavenly doctrine, that it should neither perish through forgetfulness nor vanish through error nor be corrupted by the audacity of men” (p. 72). Only through Scripture can be properly discern right from wrong. “For errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (p. 73). “The human mind because of its feebleness can in no way attain to God unless it be aided and assisted by his Sacred Word” (p. 74).


1. Scripture’s authority comes from God. The words of Scripture are God’s words. “Now daily oracles are not sent from heaven, for it pleased the Lord to hallow his truth to everlasting remembrance in the Scriptures alone [cf. John 5:39]. Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard” (p. 74).

Calvin asks two questions: How can we know that Scripture is from God? How can we know which books belong in the Bible? The Roman Catholic Church claims that the church bestows authority on Scripture and that the church determines the canon. Calvin’s response highlights one of the cardinal differences between Rome and the Reformation. Calvin states that “a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men!” (p. 75). If our trust in Scripture rested on human judgement, we would have no true assurance. “What will happen to miserable consciences seeking firm assurance of eternal life if all promises of it consist in and depend solely upon the judgment of men?” (p. 75).

2. The church is founded upon Scripture (i.e., apostolic teaching)—not the other way around! “The church is ‘built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles’ [Ephesians 2:20]. If the teaching of the prophets and apostles is the foundation, this must have had authority before the church began to exist… For if the Christian church was from the beginning founded upon the writings of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles, wherever this doctrine is found, the acceptance of it — without which the church itself would never have existed — must certainly have preceded the church.” (pp. 75-76).

While it is true that the church confirms Scripture to be the word of God and agrees with the established canon, this does not mean that the church gives the Scriptures authority. Similarly, when the church confesses that God is Triune, it is recognizing the fact, not making it true. “But because the church recognizes Scripture to be the truth of its own God, as a pious duty it unhesitatingly venerates Scripture” (p. 76).There is ample evidence that Scripture is God’s word and it authenticates itself. “Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste” (p. 76).

3. The Roman Catholic Church often points out that Augustine said that he would not believe the gospel if the authority of the church did not move him to do so (see footnote 6 on page 76). Does that not mean that the church has authority over Scripture? Calvin clarifies that the context in which Augustine made that statement was in reference to the apologetic function of the church in pointing unbelievers to the Scriptures. “Augustine is not, therefore, teaching that the faith of godly men is founded on the authority of the church; nor does he hold the view that the certainty of the gospel depends upon it. He is simply teaching that there would be no certainty of the gospel for unbelievers to win them to Christ if the consensus of the church did not impel them” (p. 77). Calvin goes on to say that for believers, we should seek our certainty from elsewhere, namely, the witness of the Holy Spirit.

4. The witness of the Holy Spirit is the primary way that we know that the Bible is true. “The highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it… [Therefore] we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit” (p. 78).

There may be other external apologetic “proofs” that the Scripture is true, but none of these are sufficient without the Holy Spirit. This is the limit to apologetics; we cannot produce faith through argumentation alone. “But even if anyone clears God’s Sacred Word from man’s evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their hearts that certainty which piety requires” (p. 79). Thus “the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (p. 79). Only the Holy Spirit can dispel our doubts.

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5. “Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit” (p. 80). “Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty… that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men” (p. 80). Each believer experiences this for himself. In response, a believer is keen to receive the teachings of Scripture as precious and true. “Indeed, what is the beginning of true doctrine but a prompt eagerness to hearken to God’s voice?” (p. 81).


1. Here, Calvin addresses some of the “proofs” that can help to establish the credibility of Scripture. But, before he begins, he again reminds us that the witness of the Holy Spirit is the only way in which we can know with certainty that Scripture is true. All other “proofs” must be understood in this context. “Unless this certainty [which is built on the witness of the Holy Spirit], higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church, or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments — not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds — become very useful aids” (pp. 81-82). Apologetic “proofs” are only helpful after we have received the Bible to be true (through the illumination of the Holy Spirit). We will go through these “proofs” very briefly below.

2. The first proof that Scripture is divinely inspired is its content. In the manner of inspiration, Scripture was not given by a mechanical verbal dictation from God. Rather the words of Scripture reflect the divine truth that entered the hearts of writers of Scripture under the inspiration of God. The writers, in turn, understood what they learned proceeded from God (see footnote 5 from page 71). This is why Scripture contains such a variety of writing styles; the Holy Spirit communicated through men of different eloquence. Still, “whether you read David, Isaiah, and the like, whose speech flows sweet and pleasing, or Amos the herdsman, Jeremiah, and Zechariah, whose harsher style savors of rusticity, that majesty of the Spirit of which I have spoken will be evident everywhere” (p. 83). When examining Scripture for proof of its divine origins, the most important thing to consider is its content, rather than its style of writing. “As far as Sacred Scripture is concerned… it clearly is crammed with thoughts that could not be humanly conceived” (p. 83).

3. Calvin appeals to the antiquity of Scripture as a second supporting proof. At the time that Calvin wrote the Institutes, he surmised that “no monument of any religion is extant that is not far later than the age of Moses” (p. 84). As the oldest known religion, it adds to the credibility that the Judeo-Christian religion is the original and purest religion in the world.

4. A third supporting proof is that Scripture often documents unflattering details about its “heroes” and patriarchs. For example, in the writings of Moses (e.g., the Pentateuch), Moses documents (to his own detriment) the shameful brand that his tribe, Levi, receives from Jacob (Genesis 49:5-6); Moses also recalls the wicked murmurings of his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam (Numbers 12:1); etc.

5. & 6. Scripture is fourthly supported by miracles. Calvin cites numerous miracles that confirmed Moses’ authority (e.g., his ascent up the mountain for forty days; his face shining; the death of Korah; the rock that poured out water; the supply of manna from the sky; etc.). These events were published during the same time that those who experienced them were still living. It would not have been possible for Moses to trick his contemporaries if he was publishing a falsified version of history. “Inasmuch as Moses published all these things before the congregation, among eyewitnesses of the events what opportunity was there for fraud?” (p. 86). Moreover, the miracles were all public and could not have been illusions. For example, “what sort of incantation could cause manna daily raining from heaven to provide sufficient food for the people: if anyone had more than his due measure stored up, to teach him from its very putrefaction that his unbelief was divinely punished [Exodus 16:19-20]?” (p. 86).

7. & 8. Calvin points out that prophecy is often written against human expectation as a fifth proof. For example, Moses predicts “the election of the Gentiles into God’s covenant [Genesis 49:10], which actually took place almost two thousand years later. Is this not plain proof that he spoke by divine inspiration? I omit other predictions, which so clearly breathe the divine revelation as to convince sane men that it is God who speaks” (p. 87).

Predictive prophecy is convincing. As another example, Calvin points out Isaiah’s prophecy of Cyrus. “He names Cyrus [Isaiah 45:1] through whom the Chaldeans had to be conquered and the people set free. More than a hundred years elapsed from the time the prophet so prophesied and
the time Cyrus was born; for the latter was born about a hundred years after the prophet’s death. No one could have divined then that there was to be a man named Cyrus who would wage war with the Babylonians, would subdue such a powerful monarchy, and terminate the exile of the people of Israel. Does not this bare narrative, without any verbal embellishment, plainly show the things Isaiah recounts to be undoubted oracles of God, not the conjectures of a man?” (pp. 87-88). Many other examples are provided.

9. & 10. A sixth proof is that the law of God has been faithfully preserved the Scriptures through the ages. Calvin states that the Scripture has been “wonderfully preserved by heavenly providence rather than by human effort” (p. 88). Many times in history, Scripture has been under threat of being completely destroyed, but none of these efforts have succeeded. For instance, Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, of Syria (176-164 B.C.) ordered all books of Scripture to be burned [1 Maccabees 1:56-57] but God was able to preserve his Holy Writings. “Let us rather ponder here how much care the Lord has taken to preserve his Word, when, contrary to everybody’s expectation, he snatched it away from a most cruel and savage tyrant, as from a raging fire. Let us consider how he armed godly priests and others with so great constancy that they did not hesitate to transmit to their posterity this treasure redeemed, if necessary, at the expense of their own lives” (p. 89). “The whole power of earth has armed itself to destroy [the Bible], yet all these efforts have gone up in smoke. How could it, assailed so strongly from every side, have resisted if it had relied upon human protection alone?” (p. 91).

11. A seventh proof is that Scripture was written by unlikely men, many who were uneducated and unsophisticated. For example, when we look at the apostles who authored the New Testament, many had a disparaging background: “Matthew, previously tied to the gain of his table, Peter and John going about in their boats — all of them rude, uneducated men —had learned nothing in the school of men that they could pass on to others. Paul, not only a sworn but fierce and murderous enemy, was converted into a new man; this sudden and unhoped-for change shows that he was compelled by heavenly authority to affirm a doctrine that he had assailed… The truth cries out openly that these men who, previously contemptible among common folk, suddenly began to discourse so gloriously of the heavenly mysteries must have been instructed by the Spirit” (p.91).

12. & 13. The final proof that Calvin advances is that the canon of Scripture has found universal acceptance among all Christians. “Besides this, there are other very good reasons why the consent of the church should not be denied its due weight. Since the publication of Scripture, age after age agreed to obey it steadfastly and harmoniously… Besides this, it is not one state, not one people, that has agreed to receive and embrace it; but, as far and as wide as the earth extends, it has obtained its authority by the holy concord of divers peoples, who otherwise had nothing in common among themselves” (pp. 91-92). Indeed, countless Christians have been willing martyrs because they have been convinced of the truth of Scripture. “Scripture… has been sealed by the blood of so many witnesses” (p. 92).

Calvin concludes this section by reminding us that all these rational “proofs” of Scripture (which are based on human testimony) are subordinate to the witness of the Holy Spirit. Only the illumination of the Holy Spirit can generate faith. “Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known” (p. 92).

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1. In this chapter, Calvin explores the relationship between Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Calvin begins by acknowledging that there are some people (e.g., those in the Radical Reformation) who seek immediate and direct revelation from God apart from Scripture—often disparaging Scripture as dead. “Furthermore, those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy. For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter” (p. 93). This is as much of an issue today as it was in Calvin’s time!

Calvin argues that the Holy Spirit never contradicts himself. If we are to be receptive to the Holy Spirit, it means we need to be open to Scripture. The Holy Spirit gives believers a true love for the Word. The Holy Spirit does not speak of himself but directs us to the Word (John 16:13). “Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel” (p. 94).

2. Any alleged revelation from the Spirit today must be tested against the Word of God. It is an error to believe that the Holy Spirit is not subject to the Scripture. Calvin calls them “miserable folk” who “contend that it is not worthy of the Spirit of God, to whom all things ought to be subject, himself to be subject to Scripture” (p. 94). Calvin corrects this error by saying, “To be sure, if the Spirit were judged by the rule of men, or of angels, or of anything else, then one would have to regard him as degraded… but when he is compared with himself, when he is considered in himself, who will on this account say that injustice is done him? … He is the Author of the Scriptures: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Hence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there” (pp. 94-95).

In the next reading group meeting, we will quickly wrap-up this section on the unity of the Word and Spirit, and then proceed into a detailed study of the Trinity!

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